The New Warren
A Cold Coming they had of it: . . . just, the worst time of the year, to take a journey . . . the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off.
BISHOP LANCELOT ANDREWES, Sermon 15:
"Of the Nativity"
Kehaar, the black-headed gull, was flying westward above the land between Caesar's Belt and the Down. He flew low and in irregular curves from north to south and back, alighting every now and then at his leisure to feed for a while across any piece of likely-looking ground which attracted him.
He was not in the best of tempers. Naturally aggressive and quick to annoyance, like most gulls who live in competition with a myriad of others, he did not always like being asked to carry out tasks by the Watership Down rabbits. Showing pugnacity and attacking their enemies was one thing. Searching was another. Five months before, he had enjoyed taking part in their conflict with Efrafa, in diving on the formidable General Woundwort, in covering the re treat of Bigwig and the fugitive does in their flight from Efrafa and helping them to escape down the river. What he liked was onslaught. Nevertheless, after the rabbits had saved his life while he was lying injured and helpless on the Down, he had willingly performed for them the reconnaissance which had so unluckily ended in nothing better than his discovery of Efrafa.
Now, to have been asked to carry out another, similar flight had annoyed him, though not to the extent of refusing to do it. It had been tactfully requested. Hazel, who knew very well that of all his rabbits Bigwig was Kehaar's particular admirer and friend, had shrewdly left to him the business of explaining to the gull their purpose and whatthey wanted him to look for.
"We're going to start a new warren, Kehaar," Bigwig had said, dodging here and there between the gull's orange colored legs as he strutted over the thinning November grass, "before this one gets crowded out. Half the rabbits will come from here and half from Efrafa. We want you to find us the right place and then go to Efrafa and ask Captain Campion to come and meet us there and have a look at it."
"Vat kind of place you vant?" replied Kehaar. "And vhere do you vant it?"
"Somewhere out there on the sunset side," said Bigwig, "about halfway between here and Efrafa. It mustn't be any where near men's houses or gardens: that's very important. And we need a dry place, where digging's going to be easy. What would be perfect would be a bank on the edge of a copse where men don't come much and there are a few bushes to conceal the holes."
"I find him," answered Kehaar shortly. "Den I come and tell you, show you vhere. Show Efrafa fellow vhere too, yes?"
"That'll be grand, Kehaar. Splendid bird! What a friend you've been to us! We couldn't possibly do it without you."
"Not for vait about. I go now. Come back tomorrow, you come 'ere for me tell you, yes?"
"I'll be here. Mind out for the cats, won't you?"
"Yark! Damn' cat: 'e no catch me again."
With this he took off, flying southward in the chilly sunshine.
He flew over Hare Warren Farm and down to the strip of woodland known as Caesar's Belt. Here he foraged for a time and exchanged chat with a few gulls like himself.
"There's bad weather on the way," said one of these. "Very bad weather; the worst we've ever known. Snow and bitter cold out of the west. If you don't want to die, Kehaar, you'd better find some shelter."
Kehaar, flying on westward, soon felt, in the mysterious and unaccountable way of his kind, the impending cold which the chance-met gull had warned him of. Muttering "Damn' rabbits no fly," he went as far as Beacon Hill before turning back along a line further to the north. Soon he came upon as perfect a site for a warren as any rabbit could well wish for: a lonely, shallow bank facing southwest on the edge of a wood of ash and silver birch. In front lay a grassy field, where three or four horses were grazing.
He alighted and looked about him. Clearly, men must come fairly often to see to the horses, but equally clearly there was no likelihood of the meadow being plowed. He could see no sign of possession by rabbitsno holes, no hraka. He would be unlikely to find a better place. It lay, he judged, rather nearer Efrafa than Watership, but this was nothing against it in the light of its obvious merits.
The following day he met Bigwig, together with Hazel, Groundsel and Thethuthinnang, and told them of his discovery. Hazel, after praising him warmly, asked him to go to Efrafa, tell Campion, and find out how soon he could join them for a meeting at the site itself.
The business of arranging a meeting involved complications and a certain amount of danger. Campion would need to be guided by Kehaar, already surly at being asked to do so much. But the Watership rabbits would also need guiding. Plainly, one party would have to wait on the site for the others to arrive. There would be danger from elil. It was some time before everything was fixed. Campion sent word that he would start as soon as he learned from Kehaar that Hazel and the others had already reached the bank and were waiting for him. This would mean that the Watership rabbits would have to spend at least a night and a day in the open.
"Well, there's no help for it," said Hazel, "and at least we'll have Kehaar with us for the night, to attack any elil that may turn up. I'm ready to start tomorrow, if we can get there in a day."
"Ya, you get dere in a day," said Kehaar. "I take you, den next day fly to Efrafa, bring Meester Campion before dark."
They arrived at the site in early evening, and after silflay in the meadow, settled down to sleep in the long grass.
In the half darkness of the moonlit night they were at tacked by a male stoat. It was plainly confident of making an easy kill, but it had reckoned without Kehaar. Alerted by the frantic squealing of the rabbits, the gull dived from the ash tree where he had settled for the night, and wounded the stoat severely before it was able to extricate itself and make off into the copse. "I no kill 'im," said Kehaar ruefully, in reply to the rabbits' thanks, "but all the same 'e get big surprise, 'e no come back."
The following morning Groundsel consulted with Hazel and Bigwig. "I'm not easily frightened by elil," he said. "Woundwort knew that: that was why he picked me for his attack on your warren. But I don't fancy living in a place that's crawling with stoats and weasels."
"You'll be all right once your holes are dug," said Big wig. "What do you think, Hazel-rah? Ought they to start digging, at once, perhaps?"
At this point they were joined by Kehaar, who had evidently overheard Bigwig.
"You no start holes now," he said to Hazel as though giving an order. "You take your rabbits home plenty damn' quick."
"But why, Kehaar?" asked Hazel. "I thought we were all ready now to bring out rabbits from both warrens and get started."
"You no get started now," said the gull, even more emphatically. "You start now, you lose every damn' rabbit you got."
"Cold. Frost, snow, ice, every damn' t'ing. Coming soon, very bad."
"Are you sure?"
"Yark! Ask any bird you like. Any rabbit try to stay 'ere, live in open, 'e frozen dead. Vinter cold coming, Meester 'Azel: bad, bad cold. You take rabbits home, whole damn' lot today."
"But you brought us here yesterday and never said any thing about frost."
"I no feel 'im yesterday. Yesterday I t'ink you got time to start. But today feel different. You no got time. Cold coming very soon."
Knowing and trusting Kehaar as they did, the four Watership rabbits set off for home at once, while the gull flew to Efrafa to tell Campion that the project was postponed. Campion was skeptical. "It doesn't look like frost to me."
"Den you go out dere, you make damn' fine ice rabbit," said Kehaar, and flew away without another word.
Copyright ) 1997 by Richard Adams